Unite: why that's precisely what we need to do

Gill George reports on a Special Executive Committee meeting of the Amicus wing of Unite (on October 9th) which threatens to block the unification of Unite on Novembr 1st.

Unite has the potential to be a brilliant union. We’re the largest union in the UK. We’ve got real industrial muscle, in a whole number of different sectors. We’ve won some important victories over a short period – Grangemouth and the Shell drivers being the best known. We’re continuing to do some excellent work: on the London buses, and fighting for decent pay for health workers, for example. This is a union that can deliver for members. Even in such a new union, we have the beginnings of a tradition that we can be proud of.

The real danger now is that the union is sucked into a vortex of in-fighting and careerism, and our members pay the price for it. It’s no wonder that our best activists are asking, ‘What the hell is going on?’

A special Executive Council meeting has been called for 9th October. The meeting will be considering two proposals, both placed before us by the Joint General Secretaries.

The first proposal is that we vote for a rule change that delays the implementation of the new Rule Book. If this is passed, we will then vote on a proposal to ‘permit the conduct of an election within the Amicus Section only for General Secretary of the Amicus Section… for a term of office to conclude in December 2010?.

In practice, this means that integrating the two sections of the union will get held up for at least six months, while we have an election that’s intended to re-elect the person who is already in office.

My own instinct – and that of most Executive Council members I’ve talked to – is that there’s no sense in this at all.

There is, of course, a story behind such a bizarre proposal. The deal done as part of the merger package was that Derek Simpson would retire a year late, in 2010, and Tony Woodley would retire a year early, in 2011. In the ‘gap year’, a new General Secretary Designate would be elected to take over as sole General Secretary of Unite as a whole on Tony Woodley’s retirement.

Strong rumours emerged at the TUC, and were repeated at September’s Executive Council, that Derek Simpson doesn’t want to retire in 2010. Rather, it seems that he wants to go on to become General Secretary of Unite as a whole. If true, that’s one strand of what’s going on.

The other strand is that a former Amicus Executive Council member, Jerry Hicks, has made a formal complaint to the Certification Officer that Derek Simpson can’t legally extend his term of office for a year, and that he should retire in 2009 instead. Jerry has also promoted himself as a candidate for General Secretary. Jerry is acting very much as an individual. He’s played no active role in the national left of Amicus for several years. Amicus Unity Gazette – now an independent and genuine left – has distanced itself sharply from Jerry’s actions. My own view is that Jerry risks causing real harm to union members.

Legal opinions on whether or not Jerry has a case are reportedly sharply divided.

However, if Derek Simpson doesn’t want to retire in 2010, he’s even less likely to want to retire in 2009. That’s why he wants to get himself re-elected now, to pre-empt any possible ruling against him.

The stuff with the Rule Book is less complicated that it sounds. The new Rule Book is due to be implemented on 1st November. On 1st November, the Amicus and TGWU sections cease to exist as separate entities, and Unite becomes once and for all a single union. There’s no time for a General Secretary election between now and 1st November. If Derek Simpson is to be re-elected as General Secretary of the Amicus section, the new Rule Book has to be delayed.

Is any of this in the interests of union members? Absolutely not, is my take on it – and I’d need a lot of convincing to support these proposals at next week’s Executive.

Our members have just voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Rule Book. Most people didn’t do this because of the small print of the rules – the content is pretty shoddy, to be honest. The vote was driven by a desire for unity, and a desire to get on with the project of building a powerful union that delivers for its members.

That project is already being derailed. Last month’s Executive Council meeting came close to farce at times. Essential reports were provided late or not at all. Executive Council members arrived at each session on time – but most sessions started late, as our Joint General Secretaries weren’t there. Tony Woodley warned the Executive that there were people who were deliberately delaying integration. Amicus reps have been told we’re not allowed to attend T&G educational events. There are reports of a letter to Amicus Officers telling them they cannot service T&G members. All of this is close to incomprehensible in what is meant to be a single union.

Our members are dealing with the consequences of an economic crisis. We’re already seeing large scale redundancies of members in our Finance sector. Many other members will find their jobs on the line if the recession deepens. The attacks on pension schemes will escalate. The pressure on wages, in an attempt to make us pay for the bosses’ crisis, will increase.

It’s blindingly obvious that we need a strong, united union to defend jobs and pay. Delaying that project while we waste time and money on whether someone retires in 2009 or 2010 is about as irrelevant as it gets.

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